Dennis Moore opened with a traditional country riff on acoustic guitar.
With notes fading, Moore proclaimed: "My patients' bill of rights will make you kick up your heels."
The Democrat candidate for Congress then ripped a lick from Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."
"We need to make Social Security solid as a rock."
He played a bit of blustery blues.
"That's what you'll feel with Vince Snowbarger's votes on education."
"And finally, pickin'," Moore said, taking a bite out of a bluegrass festival. "I hope you'll be pickin' Dennis Moore for Congress. Thank you."
The unusual 30-second TV ad did more than display Moore's musical influences. It reflected his big-tent strategy for trumping Snowbarger, the Republican incumbent in the 3rd District and a former state legislator from Olathe.
"I believe we deserve a congressman who will represent the moderate majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents whose values, voices and views are not represented by the incumbent," Moore said.
Pundits and pollsters rank the 3rd District of Kansas among the nation's high-profile showdowns. Moore, 52, is a criminal defense lawyer in Lenexa and former Johnson County district attorney. His public-service career and ability to raise about $1 million for a campaign made him a serious challenger.
"Our last poll ... it was dead even -- both about 40 percent," Moore said.
Moore was born in 1945 in Anthony and educated in Wichita public schools. His dad, Warner, was a lawyer who served six years as Sedgwick County's attorney. Moore's younger brother, Randy, sells chewing gum in Texas.
After graduating high school in 1963, Moore enrolled at Southern Methodist University. "I really didn't like Dallas that much." He transferred to Kansas University, where he earned a political science degree in 1967. Moore wasn't a hippie radical but was touched by strife on campus.
"When I was in college ... there was a war going on. That had an impact on a whole generation."
In accordance with his ROTC commitment, Moore was sent to Fort Benning, Ga., for training as an infantry officer. Several months into that mission, the U.S. Army gave him the option of fulfilling his service in the reserves. He accepted, moved to Topeka and enrolled at Washburn University's law school. He graduated in 1970 and entered politics by working on Democrat Bill Roy's congressional campaign.
"I was his first paid staff member," Moore said. "The conventional wisdom was that Roy couldn't win, but he did."
Moore began his legal career in 1971 as an assistant attorney general for Kansas, representing the Department of Corrections and Civil Rights Commission. He shifted to private practice in 1973 in Johnson County but departed the firm two years later when a senior partner told Moore he would only handle civil cases. Moore's ambition was to be a criminal trial lawyer.
"I left," he said. "One and a half years later I was running for district attorney. I was 30 years old."
Beating the odds
No Democrat in Johnson County had won a countywide race in three decades, but Moore defeated the Republican incumbent by 0.5 percent out of 105,000 votes cast in 1976. He was re-elected in 1980 and 1984.
It was in the middle of his third term that Moore took a stab at statewide office. He won the Democratic Party nomination to challenge Atty. Gen. Bob Stephan, who was saddled with fallout from a 1982 sexual harassment lawsuit. Stephan beat Moore, but Moore captured 60 percent of the vote in Johnson County.
In 1988, Moore passed on a fourth term. He had never lost a jury trial. "After 12 years, I was kind of tired of politics," he said. "I wanted a new challenge."
His first stop was a large firm in downtown Kansas City where he represented interests of a propane company for two years. He left to start a practice with a former colleague in the DA's office. Half the work was criminal defense. Currently, he's a partner in Erker and Moore.
In 1993, Moore was elected to Johnson County Community College's board of trustees. He won another four-year term in 1997.
His current wife, Stephene, is a nurse. They were wed in 1990 and have seven children from previous marriages. The children range in age from 18 to 27. Moore declined to discuss his two divorces except to say "no divorce is pretty."
Getting back in step
Moore watched while Snowbarger defeated Ed Eilert in the GOP primary of August 1996. He sat on the sidelines while Snowbarger slipped past Democrat Judy Hancock three months later.
If a Democrat or moderate Republican held the seat, Moore said he wouldn't have entered the race.
Moore decided to run for Congress because Snowbarger was "out of step with the people in this district." Snowbarger represents a faction of the Republican Party aligned with David Miller of Eudora, who unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Bill Graves in the August primary, Moore said.
"If people really look closely at Vince Snowbarger and David Miller, they're really two peas out of the same pod."
Moore's campaign focused on four issues:
- Social Security -- Moore would use projected federal budget surpluses to save the Social Security system from insolvency.
- Education -- Moore would cut pupil-teacher ratios to 17-to-1 and oppose school voucher programs. He said Americans deserve an affordable college education.
- Health care -- Moore would push a health care bill of rights to guarantee decisions were made by patients and physicians instead of bureaucrats at health maintenance organizations.
- Public safety -- Moore would require adults to store firearms with a safety lock, maintain bans on assault weapons and oppose expansion of laws that permit people to carry concealed weapons.
"I own a gun," Moore said. "We just don't need more guns on the streets."
Moore deflected criticism he became soft on crime working as a defense attorney for unsavory clients. He said all Americans had a right to effective legal representation.
"My worst fear as a prosecutor was an incompetent defense attorney, because upon conviction there would be an appeal based on incompetent defense and there was almost always a reversal," Moore said.
In regards to campaign finance, Moore said he would be satisfied to be a one-term congressman if he could change the way elections were financed. He would eliminate unregulated, unlimited soft money donations.
He also would stop third-party ads by labor unions and obscure organizations that don't disclose contributors. He said Triad Management Services of Virginia spent $287,500 on an ad blitz at the end of Snowbarger's 1996 campaign. It was apparently legal.
"You can buy a seat in Congress -- proof positive," Moore said.
Battling the RNC
In October, Moore asked the Federal Communications Commission to block TV stations from airing "false and misleading" ads paid for by the Republican National Committee. The spots undermine Moore for Snowbarger's benefit.
In the latest salvo, RNC claimed Moore opposed mandatory jail sentences for drug dealers. Moore said he called in 1986 for mandatory sentencing of people convicted of selling illegal drugs.
"My public record on fighting crime is clear and I won't allow it to be distorted by lies," said Moore, who was considering a lawsuit against the RNC.
Moore's campaign strategy was simple. Win in Johnson County, or at least stay very close. Two years ago, Snowbarger carried that GOP stronghold by 31,400 votes but won the election against Hancock by only 12,300. Snowbarger lost Wyandotte and Douglas counties and edged Hancock in Miami County.
"You can't lose by 30,000 votes in Johnson County and win," Moore said.
He urged Kansans to vote for the best candidate -- not a political party.
"There exists in Congress a small group of unyielding career politicians -- like Snowbarger -- who are more concerned with their narrow political agendas than with working to help people," Moore said. "I won (elections) in the past with a coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats and independents. That's the only way I can win this election."
-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.